Some opera buffs are wondering if there is a new wave in operatic aesthetics coming largely from Germany. Udo Zimmerman’s Die Weisse Rose (which means “The White Rose”) has enjoyed tremendous international acclaim since its 1986 premiere in Hamburg. Within its first four years, the opera was performed nearly one hundred times in countries all over the world and hailed as “full of raw power” by Alan Glasser of Musical America. Indeed, no opera more aptly fits this description than Die Weisse Rose, with its story of a brother and sister’s resistance to Hitler. Alan Rich summed it up in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner: “To these dark, passionate texts, some of them no more than an outcry of pure anguish, Zimmerman has brought a score that, to put it modestly, tears at your heart.” Remarkably, in an era when many believe that melody is a rare commodity in opera, it is exactly the consonance of Zimmerman’s melodies that fuels Die Weisse Rose’s dramatic power.
Zimmerman was born in Dresden in 1943. During much of his childhood he sang in the Dresdner Kreuzchor boys choir. At the age of 19 he began six years of studies at the Dresden Hochschule für Musik, including composition with Johannes Paul Thilman. He later attended Günther Kochan’s master classes at the German Academy of Arts in Berlin. At 27 years of age he became composer-in-residence and producer for the Dresden Staatsoper, a position he held for fifteen years. During his tenure with the Staatsoper, however, he also maintained an active composing career of non-operatic works. These include several large orchestral works, a few chamber and instrumental pieces, and a large number of vocal and choral works. Zimmerman also made time during these same years to found and direct the “Neue Musik” Studios in Dresden and to hold a professorship in composition at the Hochschule fur Musik. In 1986 he became the director of the Dresden Center for Contemporary Music.
Zimmerman first came to the attention of the American public in 1988, following the American premiere of his now famous opera Die Weisse Rose. The work, which originally premiered in 1986 in Hamburg, was first performed in the United States by Opera/Omaha in September of 1988 and by the Long Beach Opera in California in November of that same year. The opera performed in the United States by a Op version of in opera based on the same story composed by Zimmerman in 1967. The original version was the first of the composer’s six operas.
Based on a libretto by his brother, Ingo Zimmerman, the original opera was a relatively conventional one, with realistic action portrayed by nine soloists and a full orchestra. The plot revolved around the fate of real-life personages Hans and Sophie Scholl, who participated in the resistance movement against Hitler known under the code name of “White Rose” during World War II. The brother and sister team was caught distributing anti-Nazi leaflets and subsequently condemned to death. In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William L. Shirer reports that during her trial Sophie Scholl said: “We haven’t done anything special. We only did the natural thing: to be human, to stay human in a time when humanity no longer counts for anything”.
When Hamburg State Opera officials decided they wanted to revive the opera in the mid-1980s, Zimmerman decided the subject needed a fresh presentation and set to work on an entirely new opera. He even discarded his brother’s libretto in favor of a new text by Wolfgang Willaschek. The format of the new opera is completely different from that of the 1967 version. The new work is a one-act opera, consisting of a set of sixteen scenes, each a coherent musical unit, adding up to a total of seventy minutes. There are only two roles in the new opera, those of Hans and Sophie, and the “orchestra” is reduced to fifteen instrumentalists. The revised account is composed of letters, diary entries, and
Born October 6, 1943, in Dresden, Germany. Education: Hochschule für Musik, Dresden, 1962-68; attended Günther Kochan’s master class at German Academy of Arts in resden, Germany.
Composer, dramturg with Dresden Staatsoper, 1970-85; founder and director of the “Neue Musik” Studios, 1974—; professor at the Hochschule für Musik, Dresden, in composition, 1976—; director of Dresden Center for Contemporary tudios, 1974—;
Awards: Three-time winner of the German Democratic Republic’s Mendelssohn Scholarship; Hanns Eisler Prize of East German Radio, 1972-73; Marün-Anderson-Nexo-Kunstpreis (Dresden), 1974; DDR Nationalpreis, 1975.
poems that depict the Scholls’ thoughts as their fate draws near.
With the new presentation of the subject, some say Zimmerman has created a much more powerful and universal work. As it is aptly put in the Spring 1989 issue of MadAmina!: “Although the Zimmerman/Willaschek team chose the real-life Scholls as their protagonists, their collaboration has produced, through words and music but with minimal stage trappings, a flow of ideas and emotions that are as fundamental as they are timeless. Wherever the sanctity of life, the preciousness of freedom, the terror of aloneness, the inevitability of death are put into focus, this spectacle may find valid application and the ill-fated Scholl pair becomes a parable.” One interpretation of the opera went so far as to examine the threat of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) and depicted the characters in their struggle against this fatal disease. In creating Die Weisse Rose, Zimmerman was clearly concerned with truth and honesty. In an interview for MadAmina! he stated, “Truth was defined by Sophie and Hans Scholl’s conduct…. It’s not only about political resistance. It’s about inner resistance, a resistance for the cause of love, of life, of the spirit.”
Not only the subject matter, but the melodiousness of Zimmerman’s music appeals to audiences worldwide. Zimmerman is a master of melody making, yet he also uses silence with unexpected effectiveness. He infuses new life into some old methods of organizing musical materials, always paying his debt to past composers. Although Zimmerman’s earlier operas have not enjoyed the international attention given Die Wiesse Rose, they have been performed frequently in what was formerly East Germany, as well as occasionally in what was once West Germany and neighboring countries. Two of them, Levins Muhle and Der Schuhu und die fliegende Prinzessin, have been recorded on what were East German labels. Die Weisse Rose is available on the Orfeo label with the composer conducting.
Die Wiesse Rose (first version), 1967-68.
Die zweite Entscheidung, 1969-70.
Levins Muhle, 1971-72.
Der Schuhu und die fliegende Prinzenssin, 1974-75.
Die Weisse Rose (second version), 1986.
Dramatische Impression auf den Tod von J.F. Kennedy, 1963.
Musik für Streicher, 1967.
L’honime, after E. Guillevic, 1970.
Siehe meine Augen … (Reflexionen über Ernst Barlach), 1972.
Choreographien nach Degas (Die Tanzerinnen), 1972.
Musik, after Hans Arp, 2, 1974.
Sinfonia come un grande lamento, 1977.
Chamber and instrumental works
Movimenti caratteristici, 1965.
String Quartet, 1974.
Sonetti amorosi, 1967.
Der Mensch, 1970.
Ode an das Leben, 1972.
Ein Zeuge der Liebe, die besiegt den Tod, 1972.
Psalm der Nacht, 1977.
Die Wiesse Rose, Orfeo.
Levins Muhle, Bestell.
Der Schuhu und die fliegende Prinzessin, Bestell.
Sturzbecher, Ursula, Komponisten in der DDR: 17 Gespräche, Hildescheim, 1979.
Udo Zimmerman Opern, VEB Deutscher Verlag fur Musik, Leipzig.
Mad Amina!, Spring 1989.
Musical America, February 1989.
Musical Opinion, June 1989.
Musik und Gesellschaft, May 1987; October 1988; February 1989.
Neue Zeitschritt fur Musik, November 1988; June 1989.
Opera (England), September 1987; January 1989; February 1989.
Opera News, September 1988.
Opernwelt, June 1988; January 1989; April 1989; February 1990.
Orchester, February 1987; March 1990.
—Margaret Escobar and Jeanne M. Lesinski
"Zimmerman, Udo." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/zimmerman-udo
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